Randal S. Brandt:
Nancy Barr Mavity
Fifty-six years ago today, on April 23, 1959, Nancy Barr Mavity died unexpectedly of a heart attack at her home in Piedmont, California at the age of 68. She had been at her desk at the Oakland Tribune the day before— the same as every day of the previous 34 years. A feminist ahead of her time, Mavity refused to be confined to a single role. Instead, she—to borrow a phrase popular in today’s parlance—“leaned in” and led three distinctive lives as a wife and mother, a successful crime and mystery novelist, and a well-respected newspaper journalist, so well respected that the Tribune carried the story of her death on Page One on the very day she died.
But who was Nancy Barr Mavity?
Biographical details of her life paint a compelling portrait of a remarkable woman with an independent spirit. Nann Clark Barr was born in Illinois on October 22, 1890 to Dr. Granville Walter Barr and his wife Annabelle Applegate Barr. While she was still a young girl, the family moved to Keokuk, Iowa where her father, who had traded a career in medicine for journalism, became City Editor of the local newspaper, The Gate City. She earned an A.B. degree from Western College in Oxford, Ohio, attended graduate school at Wellesley College and earned both a Master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Philosophy from Cornell University, where she was awarded one of the prestigious Susan Linn Sage Graduate Scholarships in Philosophy. After leaving Cornell, she taught philosophy at Connecticut College for Women before moving to New York City to join a publishing firm. On Christmas Day 1917 Nancy married Arthur Benton Mavity, who also worked in publishing, and in March 1919, shortly after she gave birth to their first child, they moved to California. The move, which was precipitated when Arthur’s firm re-assigned him to the San Francisco office, was not a welcome one as Nancy also had a promising career in progress in New York.
They settled in Oakland and in 1920 Nancy went to work for the San Francisco Chronicle writing book reviews and literary essays. In the early 1920s, Sunset Magazine published a number of articles that she had written while traveling for six months on her own in Japan, China, Indonesia, Australia, and New Zealand. This was a truly remarkable undertaking, as her husband and two young children remained at home. Remarkable for the time, yes, but simply a matter of course in the Mavity family. In 1926, Nancy wrote a highly personal article on “The Wife, the Home, and the Job” for Harper’s Magazine in which she extolled the virtues of the working wife and mother and fiercely advocated for a woman’s right to choose her work and share parenting and housekeeping responsibilities with her husband, citing her trip as an example. (She revisited this theme in a 1951 issue of Harper’s with a follow-up article, “The Two-Income Family,” reflecting on her quarter-century of working outside the home.)
In the meantime, she began writing books—all types of books. Nancy’s initial effort, Responsible Citizenship, a textbook on American politics co-written with her husband, was published in 1923. This was followed shortly by a volume of poetry dedicated to her daughter called A Dinner of Herbs (she had been publishing her poems in various magazines since childhood), and her first novel, Hazard, which was largely autobiographical. She also wrote a history of newspaper journalism, The Modern Newspaper, in 1930 and an even-handed biography of Aimee Semple MacPherson, Sister Aimee, in 1931.
But it was when she went to work for the Oakland Tribune in 1925 that she found her life’s calling. In a retrospective that appeared at the time of her death, she is quoted as saying: “I went into newspaper work to enlarge my experience of people as an aid to fiction writing, then I stayed in it for its own sake.”
Did she ever.
For the next 33 years, the byline “By Nancy Barr Mavity” made regular appearances in the pages of the Tribune. She wrote colorfully and authoritatively on a myriad range of topics—from crime reporting to social reform, from literary criticism to local interest stories. She covered labor strikes and the Bay Area literary scene, reported on the 1945 United Nations Conference in San Francisco, and interviewed University of California physicist Ernest O. Lawrence. She was also the first woman to spend a night in Folsom Prison, where she had gone to cover the pardon hearing of Warren K. Billings, who had been convicted—along with Thomas J. Mooney—of the 1916 Preparedness Day bombing in San Francisco. She later called the resulting story one of her proudest professional achievements.
In the 1930s, Nancy Barr Mavity’s literary efforts turned to crime and detective fiction. Her first mystery novel, The Tule Marsh Murders, published in 1929, introduced ace crime reporter James Alyosius “Peter” Piper. Peter succeeds at his job by being relentless in his pursuit of a story, and he frequently conducts his own investigations without bothering to let the police in on the action. The character appeared in five additional novels: The Body on the Floor (1929), The Other Bullet (1930), The Case of the Missing Sandals (1930), The Man Who Didn't Mind Hanging (1932), and The Fate of Jane McKenzie (1933). Mavity’s last mystery, The State Versus Elna Jepson (1937), was a stand-alone courtroom drama about an obstinately independent young woman accused of murdering the wife of the man she loves.
Mavity’s mysteries are notable for their portrayal of the role of science in the detection of crime. Psychology and forensics frequently provide key clues to the solutions of the mysteries. However, it is usually Peter Piper, not the police detectives, who advocates for modern criminological methods. Over the course of the novels, Peter promotes the uses of lie detection, ballistics, fingerprint analysis, and blood spatter trajectories in uncovering murderers. Advertisements and book reviews frequently claimed that Mavity’s fictions were based on actual criminal cases and true circumstances, and the fact that the murder victim in The Case of the Missing Sandals bears a striking resemblance to Aimee Semple MacPherson did not go unnoticed in the press.
The novels were also praised by Mavity’s fellow journalists for being particularly accurate in their portrayal of newshounds and newsrooms. Although many of Peter’s news-gathering antics would never be tolerated by today’s law enforcers, some of the anecdotes from Nancy’s own career are distinctly similar to those of her fictional hero. As a crime reporter, she covered many of the most notorious criminal cases, including the trials of William Edward Hickman, a child murderer, and David Lamson, a Stanford University executive accused and eventually acquitted of murdering his wife. In one case, Mavity used a ladder to climb through the window of a vacated jury deliberation room in order to gather up the contents of the wastebasket, writing a story for the next morning’s edition on exactly how many ballots the jury had taken and what the votes were. In another, she risked facial burns by keeping her head next to a furnace pipe in order to eavesdrop on a jury, and for three days fed the newspaper direct quotes from the deliberations.
Nancy was widowed when her first husband Arthur Benton Mavity passed away in 1931, leaving her as a working single mother with two young children. In addition to keeping her job at the Tribune, she also produced her last three novels before her marriage in 1938 to photographer Edward Almon “Doc” Rogers, who had taken a ferry across the bay in order to photograph the aftermath of the great San Francisco earthquake and fire of 1906. It is unknown why she gave up fiction-writing, but she certainly did not give up her association with the Bay Area’s literary community—especially it’s flourishing cadre of mystery writers.
In 1945, Mystery Writers of America (MWA) was formed in order to promote the genre and the help ensure sufficient pay for mystery authors. Berkeley author and critic Anthony Boucher, who was also involved in progressive politics, was quick to join the cause, becoming one of the fledgling organization’s founding members. But MWA was headquartered in New York. So, in 1947, the first regional branch was established in Northern California. Their inaugural meeting was held in San Francisco, with Boucher elected chair, Lenore Glen Offord designated secretary, and Alfred Meyers as treasurer. Other Bay Area mystery writers in attendance were Robert Finnegan, Cary Lucas, Mary Collins, Miriam Allen de Ford, Darwin and Hildegarde Teilhet, Dana Lyon, Eugene Goldsmith, Dora Richards (aka “Richard”) Shattuck, Florence Ostern Faulkner, Eunice May Boyd, and Virginia Rath.
We know all of this because Nancy Barr Mavity was there, too. On March 2, 1947 the Oakland Tribune ran a lengthy article with the familiar by-line “By Nancy Barr Mavity,” accompanied by E.A. Rogers’ photographs, that described the festivities in Nancy’s characteristic light-hearted prose:
- “Crime Incorporated, with murder and mayhem, slow or sudden death and assorted dirty work at the crossroads, has invaded the Bay Area. Its practitioners have banded together to ‘hold up’ the public, demanding, in two words, more kudos and more kale. Two dozen lively promoters of death met conspiratorially, at the gunpoint of Anthony Boucher..., to form a Western ‘cell’ of Mystery Writers of America, Inc., with the flourishing slogan, ‘Crime does not pay—enough.’ Over dinner and drinks (with or without cyanide) at a San Francisco restaurant, with the butt end of a .44 for gavel, officers were elected and arrangements made for monthly meetings, alternately in San Francisco and the Eastbay.”